“It’s very white,” one resident remarked of the theme in Utile‘s “aspirational photos” for the region being described as “Downtown North.”
This was one of the kinder observations made during Tuesday’s presentation and discussion: “Hartford North Park: A Downtown Area Plan.”
Tom Deller, Director of Development Services, said a few words to set the stage, then left for the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s meeting on Flower Street across town. City officials remaining for what Deller called a public hearing included Councilperson Larry Deutsch and Councilperson David MacDonald.
While Deller did say this was only a first discussion of possibilities and that one of the project’s goals is to reconnect the north side of Hartford to Downtown, there was a shared sense of confusion over what the intention was behind this redevelopment plan and meeting.
Almost all of “Downtown North” is technically in Downtown, with a few edges in North Meadows and Clay Arsenal. The railroad tracks help form the neighborhood boundaries here, but this division has been exacerbated by a steady stream of shortsighted, automobile-centric choices.
The first part of Tim Love’s — Principal of Utile, Inc. — presentation was telling residents what all know: there are vacant, underutilized spaces and a disconnection.
This was a source of animosity: instead of straight up asking residents what the issues are, various entities have gotten paid to study Hartfordites. Love said that when creating a map to show foot traffic, he used Yelp and Google to help fill in where restaurants and other retail establishments could be found.
When asked if he or any of the planners actually walked the streets instead of relying on the Internet, Love said he had, many times.
But the skepticism of this project seemed to form before Love raised doubts about familiarity with the space. Starting off, he said there were no conclusions yet, but described the northern segment of Downtown as “maybe an area looking for some character.”
Who was questioning the motives of this project?
Seemingly everyone in the room.
Residents voicing their concerns came from the South End and Clay Arsenal mostly, with only a few describing themselves as actually living in Downtown. An area being called “Downtown West” — west of the XL Center — was tacked onto the “Downtown North” project.
As Love described the aims of the project — create a stronger connection between Riverside Park and Downtown, put some roads on a (slight) lane diet, and focus on “nodes” — audience members’ questions and comments illustrated the level of alienation between the planners and residents.
“On a scale of zero to ten, how much will this benefit the people in the North End?” one man asked. Love sidestepped the question initially, so it was posed again, with a heckler chiming in: “zero.”
Another person with the Clay Arsenal NRZ said this would not benefit the North End: “There’s a nice little neighborhood over there that needs to be incorporated” into this project.
After being shown a map with nodes — priority development sites at Trumbull and Main, Allyn and High, the old Hilton site on Asylum, and lot at Pratt and Main (which is outside of the Downtown North range) — marked in blue, one resident was overheard saying, “Do you see those blue dots? Not fucking one of them is in the North End.”
Questions were raised about whose interests were being served by this.
Others weren’t convinced there was any there there. A resident told the planners: “you don’t have a project that exists.”
Part of the disconnect that always happens at charrettes and the like is that planners speak the language of planners, whether that be the dialect of those in economics or architecture. There is no clear explanation for the average person what these processes involve, and when those average people grow frustrated with what seems like a futile exercise, the experts do little to alleviate the situation.
When it was pointed out that the aspirational photos featured mostly white people and images of wealth, there was little that could be said to defend what was, at best, a lack of familiarity with the population in this area. When the word “gentrification” was hissed by residents, nobody should have been surprised, let alone flustered to the point that another professional felt the need to step in to answer the audience’s questions and concerns.
The next public meeting about the Downtown North redevelopment project is tentatively scheduled for October 24, 2013.